Two cheers for the presidential selection system

There is a serious debate taking place about the health, stability, and relevance of the constitutional order. As I have written elsewhere, there is a tendency to conflate the underlying features of the Constitution with the political system that overlays it — to the detriment of understanding what is still working relatively well in the case of the former. A good example of this phenomenon is the presidential selection system.

To start with something obvious but nevertheless overlooked, consider the four-year term of the presidency, which is longer than any state governor’s term in 1787. The Constitution’s architects thought that four years was long enough for the country to properly assess the office-holder’s competence. Shorter, and a president’s policies might not have had time to show their benefits; longer, and the country might be stuck, and harmed, with executive incompetency. In the country’s most recent presidential election, a sufficient number of independents and regular Republican voters came to the conclusion that they had seen enough of Donald Trump as president to vote for Joe Biden and his promise to return to some form of governing normalcy.

Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump debate in Nashville, Tennessee.
Morry Gash/Pool via REUTERS

But, as has been widely noted, a significant number of those voting for Biden also voted Republican for state and congressional offices. The possibility of doing so, of course, is baked into the Constitution. Although the elections might be held on the same day, the Constitution’s drafters did not intend to make the first Tuesday in November a national plebiscite. The Framers quite consciously sought to give electoral voice to the wide variety of interests and opinions that would make up this geographically extensive republic. It would be up to the political institutions — Congress and the presidency — to shape, if possible, those distinct voices into a coherent policies.

While this system can make coherent policy-making more difficult, it also more accurately reflects the state of division in our extended republic. There is no national consensus about much of the sweeping agenda being put forward by the administration and Democrat leadership in the House. Although Democrats hold the White House and Congress, the distinct electoral processes for the president and members of Congress prevent this from amounting to total control. Although majoritarian advocates like to see popular mandates in every election, true popular mandates for presidents are rare. Accordingly, a president’s real task, more often than not, is to reflect on what is possible in building a broader national consensus on policies. There’s nothing easy about doing so, but the presidency’s own national election, which is built state by state, makes the office uniquely suited to take on this task, which, if successful, can obviate partisan battle lines and deepening polarization. The problem here is not the Constitution so much as presidents often misreading the true basis of their own support and, in turn, Congress largely abandoning many of the tools, like the committee system, that made greater deliberation and consensual policymaking possible.

It’s also of special relevance to current disputes to remember that one of the arguments made by those supporting the new constitution’s ratification in 1787–88 was the fact that the Electoral College system was specifically constructed to have electors meet and vote in their respective states, with the states certifying the count. They argued that fragmenting the process would make it more difficult for domestic factions to collude in the selection process — avoiding precisely the kind of danger posed by those who wanted to use the vice president and Congress to overturn the election on January 6.

This is not to say that the presidential selection system is in good working order. But many of the current problems are self-inflicted. Presidential campaigns are too long and too expensive and, hence, too disruptive of what should be the ongoing business of sound government. And, of course, the political parties have lost virtually all control over who runs and who is selected to be their party’s candidate. It’s now a roll of the die every four years as to who gets selected. The length, expense, and structure of these elections are the product of federal law and party rules, not the Constitution. Given the importance of the presidency in the constitutional system, it would be a good thing if the parties would focus a little less on how democratic and open their process is and more on the quality of the candidate that is produced by that process. So, for the time being, it’s only two cheers for the current selection system.

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